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Steelers want to ramp up physicality against Ravens

The Steelers have had a very distinct way of playing the Ravens since Lamar Jackson took over as Baltimore's starting quarterback in the 2018 season.

Because the Ravens' offense now revolves around the quarterback running the ball so much – Jackson leads the team with 764 rushing yards, nearly 350 yards more than the next closest player on their roster – stopping those runs is the key to limiting Baltimore.

And it's worked. The Steelers have won four consecutive games against the Ravens, limiting Baltimore to an average of 17 points per game in those victories.

The way the Steelers have accomplished that is making sure the quarterback is accounted for on every play, whether it be Jackson, Robert Griffin III or Tyler Huntley, and hitting the quarterback every chance they get, whether he's passing or running.

Because the Ravens' offense is based on read-option handoffs, on which the quarterback can either tuck the ball into a running back's belly or keep it himself and take off running, it's legal to hit him, even if he hands the ball off on those plays. And the Steelers have taken full advantage of that in their recent meetings with the Ravens.

Sunday, when the Steelers (5-7) host the Ravens (8-4) at Acrisure Stadium, little is expected to change in that regard.

Jackson is unlikely to play. He's sidelined with a knee injury suffered in Baltimore's 10-9 victory over the Broncos last week. But the Ravens' offense doesn't change dramatically with Huntley in the game. Huntley led the Ravens with 10 carries for 41 yards in that game.

"They do a great job of using the quarterback and making you have to defend him," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "It makes it tough. A lot of times, if you have a quarterback that can't move, you might see some exotic defenses, some different fronts and all of that other stuff. But you'd better be pretty straight forward against this, because if they catch you out (of place), they're going to hit you for a long gain."

The Steelers faced a similar style of offense in their 19-16 victory over the Falcons last week. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is an adept runner and a big part of Atlanta's rushing attack.

But against the Steelers, he wasn't much of a factor, running the ball just three times for 17 yards.

In fact, the Falcons ran the ball just six times overall in the first half of that game, trying to attack the Steelers through the air. Austin doesn't expect a similar tactic from the Ravens, who average 157.8 yards rushing per game to rank third in the NFL.

The Falcons are second in the league in rushing, but didn't go to their running game last week until the second half, when they gained 118 yards on 22 carries. Despite that, the Steelers still rank seventh in the NFL against the run, allowing 107.5 yards per game.

The Steelers don't expect a similar tactic from the Ravens.

"No. I think they're going to line up and run the ball," Austin said. "They're going to say, 'We're going to find out if you can stop us.' They're going to run the ball. They're going to do what they do. I thought we were good for a half. We have to play better. 

"We have to make sure we have a 60-minute commitment to the run game. We've been good most of the year, but we've got to continue to improve that because this week it's going to be paramount. They're going to get in there, because they've got big men up front, they've got big men that are lead blockers and everything else. We've got to be able to play the run game for 60 minutes. We're not going to be able to talk them out of that."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

But they can, perhaps, coax the quarterback not to keep the ball and try to run much on the read-option plays. In the past, the Steelers have done that by having their outside linebackers, in this case T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, crash the edges and hit the quarterback as often as possible.

"I think it's about applying pressure, whether that's in the pass or the run game," Highsmith said. "With their very unique talents when it comes to throwing or running the ball, it's important for us to get after them. We know if we stop the run and we're able to get after them when they pass, it's going to be a successful day for us. It's about being physical. They're a physical team and they try to run the ball."

Huntley had 294 rushing yards in seven games, four of them starts, in place of an injured Jackson last season, averaging 6.3 yards per rushing attempt. That's right in line with the 6.8 yards per carry Jackson averages this season.

Huntley might not quite be Jackson as a runner – few are – but he's dangerous.

"There's only one Lamar. To compare him to Lamar is probably not fair," Austin said. "He runs the ball well. He can escape. He does all the things you want your quarterback to do. Just dealing with Lamar, he's a different guy. But I have a lot of respect for Huntley."

So much so, the Steelers are expected to treat Huntley the same way they would treat Jackson were he playing in this game.

They'll likely try to attack him on the edges and keep him hemmed in the pocket.

"You have to pick and choose your spots. A lot of times when you blitz them, you don't do it so much to sack them but to keep them in the pocket," Austin said. "You want to cut down on the running lanes and the way he can get out and hurt you. A lot of times, you see with mobile quarterbacks, when they get outside of the pocket, that's when they're most dangerous. There's really a strategic element to the blitz and why you would want to, but it all depends on the guy."

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